Reprogram Your Brain
Updated: Mar 4
The human brain is a complex network of neural and synaptic connectivity and there is still so much to be understood, but for a long time it was believed that the creation of new neurons within the brain (neurogenesis), only took place during embryonic development, and so basically we only had the neurons we were born with. That meant we could only lose neurons as life went on. However, we now know that there is hope in terms of neurogenesis, and that in certain parts of the brain, neurons can grow back. Two particular areas of the brain where we now know this is possible include the olfactory bulb (involved in perception of odours), and the hippocampus. BUT, if we don’t use our new-born neurons, we’ll lose them. Within about a month, those neurons need to connect into a network inside the brain in order to survive.
Let’s look at the hippocampus
When the scientist, Julius Caesar Arunzi, discovered a small, slightly curved structure in the brain that reminded him of a seahorse, he used the Greek word 'hippokampus' to describe it (a mythological creature with the body of a horse and the tail of a fish). The word literally means horse (hippos) and sea monster (kampos), and is often translated simply as sea-horse.
Split into two hippocampi lying right in the middle of your brain, a little over your ears on both sides, it forms a small part of the limbic system in our brain, which is responsible for our behavioural and emotional responses. The hippocampus plays a crucial role in learning, emotional responses, memory formation (particularly the saving of short to long-term memory), spatial memory (concerned with processing information about our location), and even plays a part in prediction of upcoming events.
Every time we learn something new for example, a unique neural pathway is created. Recalling this information makes that neural pathway stronger. It’s then easier for the hippocampus function to recall this information. In other words, when you revise for an exam or test for example, you are in fact making your neural pathways stronger.
During sleep and other moments that are task-free, it also thought that the hippocampus is spontaneously active.
Unfortunately, the hippocampus is an area of the brain that is particularly sensitive to age-related decay. However, it's also sort of like an inner hard drive, and just like other hard drives, there's quite a lot we can do to boost its performance.
What happens if the hippocampus is damaged or underdeveloped?
One of the most obvious brain disorders associated with the hippocampus is Alzheimers. Important cells and connections die off which leads to memory loss and impairment and other mental dysfunctions. Other conditions include amnesia, epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
How do I boost the performance of my hippocampus?
A diet high in essential fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals plays a central role in boosting cellular structure and brain signalling, and importantly, new research is starting to reveal the very real damage that a high fat, high sugar diet plays in impairment of learning and memory activity in the brain. So ditch the junk food!
The more neural pathways we create, the easier it is to create newer ones. So, we need to keep our brain on its toes and employ some mental gymnastics to stimulate new connections. This stuff doesn't work by osmosis, it requires action! Immersing yourself in new learning - new subjects, a new language, crosswords, an instrument, mastering the alphabet backwards, attempting to become ambidextrous, juggling, memory skills, backwards left-handed mirror-image writing (if you're brave!), all helps to support the growth of new nerve cells, creating new neural pathways and linking them into 'networks.' At one point in his life, Bill Gates took a different route home every day to stimulate his brain.
Researchers even believe there may be a link between Alzheimer's and lower levels of mental activity associated with lower levels of education.
(Modern life is affecting our natural ability to do so much. Visual neuroplasity and subsequent improvements in eyesight for example, is another area where massive gains can be made with consistent training).
This is where it gets really interesting! In general, we know that healthy older adults with higher fitness levels have less cognitive decline than others. From middle age onwards, in an adult without dementia, the hippocampus actually shrinks in volume by about 1-2% per year. But what research is now starting to show, is that individuals with higher levels of aerobic fitness specifically (as opposed to flexibility and muscle strengthening), have greater hippocampus volume and display better spatial memory performance than individuals with lower aerobic fitness levels. Not only does exercise increase blood flow to the brain but researchers are now starting to discover the crucial role that aerobic exercise plays in actually creating new neurons in the first place! Even just one year of aerobic exercise intervention, led to an associated increase in the size of the hippocampus by approximately 2%, and this shows that there is scope to at least halt the decline in hippocampus volume loss that occurs from middle age. Even in sedentary adults, researchers found that those who started exercising, even for just 3 months, made gains in hippocampal blood flow and memory performance!
There are plenty of good reasons to be physically active. Big ones include cutting your risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke and osteoarthritis, as well as losing weight, boosting energy, mood and self-esteem. But here’s another one…. aerobic exercise changes the brain in ways that protect and boost memory and thinking skills. Blood and sweat-gland pumping exercise has a significant impact on the hippocampus as we age, reducing hippocampal volume loss, reducing cognitive decline, and reducing our risk of dementia by 50% (Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Society). Not only is this a low-cost, non-pharmaceutical intervention, it’s free, accessible to most, and research shows it's never too late to get started! Get your trainers on, get out there...and don't forget to shake up your route!